Thursday, July 21, 2011

Alexander to Actium

Peter Green's Alexander to Actium was an excellent book covering a period that generally doesn't receive enough attention.  The Hellenistic era was important to the later development of Rome and provides some great examples of despotism as well as the decadence of these societies.  I personally would have wished for more about the economy, but this book is a general overview and my interests are a bit more specialized.  It provides a balanced account of the basic political history as well as chapters devoted to the society of the time, art, philosophy, the economy, and more.  It is most definitely worth reading.

I took up my issues with the economic aspects earlier, in particular the puzzle of why the Greeks never developed more in the way of productive machinery.  To sum up my early statements, I don't really see this as a puzzle.  Lacking knowledge of what investment would later lead to I don't see why anything other than an observation of the high capital costs and low potential return is necessary to explain why businessmen of this period would favor consumption over investment.  Trying to explain it in terms of slavery or of cultural attitudes seems unnecessary, durable machinery would have been basically non-existent because of poor and expensive metallurgy leading to high depreciation and plenty of land and population was available for extensive development, why would anyone try intensive methods?  It took a very long time to get where we are, once the benefits became obvious we saw rapid development, until then development was essentially serendipitous, I don't think there's anything that needs further explanation here.  Investment and development are simply non-obvious, until the examples were present it simply didn't happen in a predictable fashion.

The second point I want to take up regards my earlier writing about decadence.  In many of these states we see political decay alongside moral decay particularly among the ruling families.  There are a few points I want to make, first societies such as the Romans engaged in a fair amount of ostentatious consumption even when they were rising, attributing decadence to simple wealth seems misplaced.  Also, these societies started out wealthier than they ended up, wealth seems misplaced as a reason for decadence.  To go back to my earlier writing, I do think this book exposed a flaw.  I had mused that rising elites would generate new forms of morality that would be more appropriate to changing circumstances than the old one, in the Hellenistic case, while there certainly was a flourishing commercial elite alongside the more traditional political elites, there isn't any evidence I'm aware of that this elite developed much in the way of a new moral and ideological system that was opposed by the old elites, they simply didn't posit anything at all.  So, I have to slightly adjust my earlier statements by saying that a new, rising elite produces the opportunity to create a new morality for new conditions that will be opposed by old elites, there is however nothing that will force the new elite to form a new moral underpinning for their rise.  It is simply possible for the old morality to remain the only restraint on individual action with nothing arising to take its place.  This however, is something I see as being only one possibility rather than a general outcome.

The third point I want to make is that the Hellenistic kingdoms provide an excellent example of a conquest elite.  This is the type of regime that best fits the notion of government as intrinsically coercive and concerned mostly with exploiting a subject population  while conceiving of the state as a form of private property.  This fits the Hellenistic governments very well.  It is notable however, that these states aren't generalizable to political society generally, they are a particular form of society and one with distinguishing characteristics, most notably, a reliance on a distinct ethnic community and a belief in the separateness of the governing class from the rest of the society (the institutionalization of class along ethnic, political, and economic lines is also common).

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